The shooting of another Lamar Canyon pack member has renewed calls for a buffer between Yellowstone and nearby lands, to protect roaming wolves.
By Jim Robbins
HELENA, Mont. — A wild wolf known as 926F, dear to the hearts of wolf watchers who visit Yellowstone, was killed by a hunter as it wandered just outside the park last weekend.
A member of the Lamar Canyon pack in the national park’s northeast region, 926F was the daughter of 832F, an alpha female that had become a celebrity, famous for her hunting prowess and for her frequent appearances along the road traveled by tourists in the park’s Lamar Valley.
While wolf biologists called the mother 832F, the she-wolf was famously known as “06” for the year she was born. The subject of the book “American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West,” she was killed by a hunter as well.
“Everybody’s mourning, everybody’s thinking about what to do to stop this madness,” said Karol Miller, who founded a group of wolf lovers on Facebook called The 06 Legacy. “People love the Lamar Canyon Pack and people know 06 from her New York Times obituary. These are the descendants of 06, her legacy. People love those wolves.”
Wolf watchers called 06’s daughter Spitfire.
The shooting occurred near cabins and was within hunting laws; Montana has permitted hunting of wolves since 2011, and a few hundred are killed each year.
“A game warden checked with the hunter and everything about this harvest was legal,” said Abby Nelson, a wolf management specialist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
But the killing has renewed calls for a buffer around the park so wolves that live within the safe harbor of Yellowstone and that have little fear of humans cannot be shot if they wander beyond the park’s invisible boundary.
While Montana lawmakers have passed legislation forbidding creation of a buffer zone, there is a hunting limit of two wolves in each of two districts adjacent to the northern boundary of the park.
Still, wolf hunting near Yellowstone has been extremely controversial, highlighting the clash between the New West’s ecotourism and the Old West’s hunting to protect game and livestock.
Wolves were restored to the park in the 1990s and quickly grew in number. About 100 wolves belong to 10 packs in Yellowstone, which is considered the ideal park for sightings of the animals as they hunt elk, feed on carcasses and play with their pups. Some 1,700 wolves live in the Northern Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Leo Leckie, a guide for Yellowstone Wolf Tracker, a group that offers to take visitors to see the wolves, keeps a family history of Yellowstone wolves on Ancestry.com.
He believes the hunting of wolves has made it harder to see them. The killing of Spitfire “will undoubtedly hurt our business,” he said.
And there are questions about how sporting it is to hunt animals that have learned that humans are safe.
“Wolf hunters talk about seeing a pack of park wolves outside the boundary and being able to pick the one they want,” said Doug Smith, the park’s wolf biologist. “They just stand there and have no fear.”
Spitfire, or 926F, was killed just a few miles outside the park in Montana near the northeast entrance to the park, between the tiny communities of Silver Gate and Cooke City, Mont.
She left behind a daughter that wolf watchers have named Little T, so-called because of a small white marking. Another wolf, Small Dot, is the male, and for the first time in three years a litter of five pups was born to the Lamar Canyon pack.
With the matriarch gone, Dr. Smith said, the famed pack could be in trouble. Even though the breeding pack is intact, its seven-member size may not be as resilient as bigger groups. “Its survival is an open question,” he said.
And there is still one wolf tag to be filled in the hunting district where Spitfire was killed.
Meanwhile, the killer of a rare white wolf shot illegally outside of the park in April 2017 has never been found. A $25,000 reward from the National Park Service still stands.